Natural Lands Project

Prescribed Fire

  • Grass emerging after a recent prescribed fire
    Grass emerging after a recent prescribed fire
    Dan Small
  • WSG clump after a prescribed fire
    WSG clump after a prescribed fire
    Dan Small
  • WSG clump after prescribed fire
    WSG clump after prescribed fire
    Dan Small
  • NWSG field a couple of weeks post fire
    NWSG field a couple of weeks post fire
    Dan Small
  • Dan Small
  • Prescibed fire
    Prescibed fire
    Dan Small
  • post burn
    post burn
    Dan Small
  • Prescribed fire - backburn
    Prescribed fire - backburn
    Dan Small
  • Front fire
    Front fire
    Dan Small
  • WSG field
    WSG field
    Dan Small
May 31, 2017
Benefits of prescribed fire to grassland ecosystems

One of the best management tools for native warm season grasses (nWSG) is fire. Prescribed burning uses fire in a controlled manner to accomplished desired management outcomes such as clearing the grassland of duff or layers of previous years’ growth at ground level, thinning out encroaching woody vegetation, improving wildlife habitat and increasing flowering plant diversity.

Native warm season grasslands quickly lose their wildlife value if they are not managed on a regular basis. All species of nWSGs produce a tremendous amount vegetation each year and after senescence most grasses will fall over and lay on the ground for the winter. The next spring, and in subsequent growing seasons the process is repeated and in just a few years no open ground will remain. With no exposed ground, no annual wildflowers will emerge and ground nesting birds will not be able to navigate through the thick duff layer. If no management occurs the grassland will eventually become a monoculture of rank grasses and certain grassland birds, like Northern Bobwhite will not use the site.

Creating a grassland with high value for wildlife can be accomplished by burning, particularly in different seasons – dormant season burns and growing season burns. Dormant season burns typically take place during the winter months, but the best time to do a dormant season burn is during mid-March to mid-April in the mid-Atlantic. This ensures that there is sufficient winter cover for wildlife and that burning is finished before birds begin nesting in the spring. A growing season burn takes place while the vegetation is still green and growing, ideally in late September after the nesting season. Growing season burns are great for reducing woody vegetation. 

No matter what time of year you burn, it is important not burn the entire grassland. Leaving unburned areas will ensure adequate cover during the winter months for grassland birds and overwintering insects. This can be accomplished by burning small blocks within larger fields creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas. This patchwork approach creates more usable space for grassland birds and increases diversity within the grassland.

Quail thrive in areas that are regularly disturbed through prescribed burns. Quail will nest in areas that are unburned (but not for more than a couple of years) because the dense vegetation is good for hiding nests, but once their eggs have hatched, the family will move into recently burned areas.  These areas have bare soil lacking duff or thatch on the ground which is extremely important for young quail a few days out the nest with legs only an inch long. This habitat allows quail easily to maneuver under the protective canopy of the growing grasses and wildflowers.

To increase plant diversity and make your grassland better habitat for nesting birds consider prescribed burning. Your local county Soil Conservation District personnel can assist you with the permitting process and provide guidance when it comes to preparing for a prescribed burn.


Last modified on May. 31st, 2017 at 1:12pm by Daniel Small.